Zipping through the new books section of the library last week I came across Gregory Maguire’s A Lion Among Men, subtitled “Volume Three in the Wicked Years” (from which subtitle, new to the series—and from the fact that it introduces more threads than it seems likely to resolve—I conclude Maguire plans more Volumes in the Wicked Years). I’m now halfway through reading it aloud to the child. If you think the Wicked books are wholly inappropriate for reading aloud to one’s children, well, you’re right, but there it is.
As you’ve gathered from the title, the focus of the book is the Cowardly Lion, named Brrr, previously seen as a cub in Wicked. Brrr is (no surprise) not exactly a coward in the way of Burt Lahr, but more naive, dandified, and depressive. He comes by his sobriquet through his accidental involvement in the bloody suppression of a miners’ strike (emerald miners, that is), from which he acquires both fame and shame, as he only gradually realizes.
The story is framed by Brrr’s interview with Yackle, the mysterious crone and oracle from Wicked, on business is a Court Reporter for Emerald City magistrates, a position he seems not to have taken entirely voluntarily. She interrogates him more effectively than he interrogates her, and the bulk of the book is thus his life story, or parts of it. We also learn a little (to start with) more of her history. Meanwhile, the Clock of the Time Dragon lurks nearby…
I still haven’t figured out what I think of Maguire’s writing. I don’t mean whether it’s good—it’s very good—I mean whether I like his archly ironic juxtaposition of vaguely fantastical language with informal modern idiom, the dialogue that leaps from (intentionally) pompous fantasy-language to Victorian guttersnipe to street thug to modern American slang. Here’s the beginning of Brrr’s interview with Yackle:
It’s been a long time since I have seen Death this close up, he thought. This is Death refusing to die. She’s a centerfold for a mortuary quarterly.
“I was quite a looker in my time,” she said. Was she reading his mind, or only being smart, to know that she must be hideous?
“Oh had they invented time as long ago as that?”
“A comedian,” she observed. “I come back from the very gates of death to be interviewed by a vaudeville wannabe.”
“Let’s get started.” He flipped open his notebook. At the top of the page he wrote a note to himself: Interview One. Don’t Vomit.
And from Yackle:
“You want the three historic segments of my earthly life? I’ve lived through a good deal of these modern times, if you can call it living. I’d arrived, preaged and preshrunk, a crone at birth, just at the end of the Ozma regency, before Pastorius was deposed by the Wizard and the infant Ozma was secreted away, probably murdered…
“Following the Wizard’s abdication of the Throne, the brief and blameless twin interregnums—first of Lady Glinda, that bottle blonde, and the of the so-called Scarecrow, who came to power and left it again faster than a pile of autumn kindling responds to a winter torch.
Last year I (and the daughter) saw Wicked, The Musical (alas, in its touring incarnation, Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel being long goine). It was, thought I, nothing like the book. The book was subtle, sad, disturbing, and deeply, deeply twisted, weird to the core. The play was none of those things. It was a musical about a green girl and her boyfriend, with (SPOILER ALERT!) a tacked-on happy ending. It only vaguely hinted at the intricate politics of Maguire’s Oz, at its complex societal structure, and above all at the otherworldly strangeness of it all. The characters themselves were (inevitably, in any transition from book to musical) flattened into caricatures: Glinda became a simple society airhead, Elphaba herself a bit of a wisecracker. The acrobatic flying monkeys were good, though, I’ll give it that.
A pretentious typographical note. Wicked (at least the edition I read) was set in Truesdell, a reconstruction of a lost Frederic Goudy typeface, one of his more “hand-carved” designs. It’s a strange-looking font, that put me in mind of Grimm’s grim Fairy Tales, of kobolds and gremlins and dangerously mischievous faeries, of ancient signs carved in walls of long-abandoned caves. It gave an already-strange book an even stranger affect. It may have been a bit much, but I liked it. I must be in the minority there, though, as the publishers changed the typeface for the sequels. Son of a Witch and A Lion Among Men are set in Bembo. Now Bembo is a very fine typeface—one of my favorites—but it seems somehow earthbound after the creepy excess of Truesdell.